An occasional cough is normal. Coughing is a natural reflex that keeps your throat and airway clear of mucus and irritants.
Coughing that lasts for weeks or one that brings up bloody or discolored mucus, however, may be a sign that you have a condition that requires medical attention. Coughs rarely require a trip to the emergency room, but a trip to your doctor or pulmonary care expert is in order.
Coughs can be acute, meaning they come on suddenly and last less than three weeks. A cold, the flu or bronchitis can cause acute coughs. Sinus or lung infections may cause acute coughs.
Coughs can also be chronic, lasting longer than three weeks. Common causes of chronic coughs include:
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Lung disease, including bronchiectasis, interstitial lung disease and lung cancer
- Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
- Throat disorders
- Chronic sinusitis with post-nasal drip
- Certain medications, especially ACE inhibitors used to treat high blood pressure, heart failure or kidney disease
Coughs can be productive, meaning it brings up mucus, or non-productive. Mucus, also known as phlegm or sputum, moistens and warms the air you breathe. It also lubricates tiny hairs, known as cilia, which remove inhaled particles. Too much mucus, however, can cause you to start coughing.
Coughs can be very forceful. During a coughing attack, air can move at nearly 500 miles per hour past your vocal cords. Moving air at this rate takes considerable energy. Prolonged coughing can be exhausting, especially when it disturbs sleep. Vigorous coughing can cause headaches, urinary incontinence and even broken ribs.
Contact your doctor if your cough does not go away after a few weeks. You may need medical help if you are coughing up thick yellowish-green phlegm, are wheezing or feel short of breath. Call your doctor if you are coughing and have a fever greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When to See a Doctor
Emergency care is rarely needed, but seek help immediately if you are choking, having difficulty breathing or swallowing, or coughing up bloody phlegm.
Your doctor may order x-rays, CT or MRI scans to determine the cause of your coughing; blood tests may also be helpful. In some cases, your doctor may recommend a pulmonary function test (PFT) to determine how well your lungs are working. These tests measure how much air you can breathe in and out, how quickly you can exhale, and how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your bloodstream. PFTs can help diagnose asthma and other conditions that cause coughing. Bronchoscopy, a procedure that helps pulmonary doctors see inside your lungs, may be helpful in determining the cause of your coughs.
Treatment for your coughing starts by treating the underlying cause. Depending on the cause, treatment may include antibiotics or asthma medication. Other medications can suppress coughing at night or loosen mucus to make it easier to cough up during the day.